27 July 2016
Pera Museum Blog is launching a new series of creepy stories in collaboration with Turkey’s Fantasy and Science Fiction Arts Association (FABISAD). The Association’s member writers are presenting newly commissioned short horror stories inspired by the artworks of Mario Prassinos as part of the Museum’s In Pursuit of an Artist: Istanbul-Paris-Istanbul exhibition. The fourth story is by Işın Beril Tetik! The stories will be published online throughout the exhibition. Stay tuned!
The mourning cypresses reach up to the sky like thorns in the earth’s side.
About a year ago, Ela was dead for seven minutes. Death had come to her as she was watching her younger brother play gleefully in the sandpit at the park. A sudden flash that washed her world with a burning white light, a merciless roar resembling that of a monster… When her body was lifted from the bench like a doll and thrown against the warm sand, she thought her soul had jumped out of her body for a moment with the force of the impact. As the small flashes of light continued in the darkness behind her eyes, the din in her ears spread to her whole self, trying to move her numb body in an effort to find proof that she was still alive. It was only much later that she would realize this short episode had been a preliminary meeting arranged with death.
You were struck by lightning, her mother told her. It had been difficult to figure out who she was, where she was, and who the people around her were when she came back from death and opened her eyes in the hospital. After a brief bewilderment, she was engulfed in panic as soon as she realized what happened to her. She believed that the lightning, which had struck very close to the bench she was sitting on, had changed her, in fact branded her for the next rendezvous. For Ela, the greatest proof of this were the marks on her body. The red traces of the cypress on her back and her arms… Her body had already begun mourning her…
Trees, 14 November 1984, Oil on Arches vellum pasted on prepared canvas, 75.4 x 105.7 cm., FNAC 350308, Centre National des Arts Plastiques
The doctor told her a lightning strike was liable to leave such marks on the body and that it caused neurological damage as well, which made her experience quite normal. No amount of drugs or therapy, however, was able to bring Ela back to her old self. With that misguided lightning, the cheerfully extrovert seventeen-year old girl had been replaced by a withdrawn girl who was afraid of everything, irritable, anxious, accustomed to living with her nightmares. Nobody could get through to her anymore. It seemed that Ela was trying to hide her existence, becoming ever fainter in the rush of life, making a hopeless effort to turn into a shadow.
The decision to move had been given very abruptly. The family had been about to give up hope on Ela, who by then had almost completely stopped speaking, when they decided as a last resort to leave the big city and move to the seaside town of her mother, in the hope that this would restore the girl’s deteriorating health. As they set off for the mansion they had inherited a few years ago, her mother was nervous about going back to her family house. As a matter of fact, she did not want to go back to the place she was born and raised in. But the convincing things Ela’s father said about fear and sacrifice had forced her to accept the situation. Ela’s mother never talked about her childhood, her family, or the house she grew up in. She had severed her ties with her past many years ago, which indicated that her memories about the mansion weren’t that pleasant. Ela had never known her grandparents. She knew nothing about them except for the date of their death.
The journey lasted shorter than Ela expected. She lost herself in the sad story of the ever-changing landscape that flowed by her window, and she didn’t even notice all those kilometers they covered. They arrived at the mansion before nightfall.
Agate Sun, 1972, Aquatint, etching and engraving on copper, 76 x 57 cm. FNAC 35365 Centre National des Arts Plastiques
As her parents unloaded their luggage, Ela stood at the steps of the mansion’s porch, looking at the heavy, hand-carved main door. Death was waiting for her here, at this house, behind this door. She had felt this even before they had entered the dirt road meandering to the mansion. The red and pointed roof of the mansion was visible from afar, rising like a tombstone from among the trees, and she felt it was calling her. Its impressive silhouette became more and more visible as they went, and the darkness that emanated from it leaned on her like an ominous nightmare. It touched things hidden in the corners of her soul, tying her to itself with invisible cords.
Her brother opened the door and went inside, and Ela followed him. When she crossed the wide hallway and opened the wooden double door opening up to the garden from the big living room in the back, she was met by a view surpassing her expectations. She inhaled the fresh air that rushed inside as if to suppress the smell of dust, mildew, and wood, and she noticed the shaded natural corridor created by the cypresses filling the amazing back garden of the mansion. She felt a sudden pain in her head, closed her eyes, and leaned against the door. When she opened her eyes again, she saw the small woods getting bigger in all directions, the wind rushing among the trees calling out her name in invitation.
As if in a dream, Ela walked down the stairs to the garden. When the woods ended and she reached a small moon pool, she knew she had found the place she saw in her nightmares ever since that first moment she had opened her eyes in the hospital. She was so certain of this that the possibility this was all really happening terrified her. As she looked at the moon pool with her eyes wide open, she expected to see its murky water turn to blood like it did in her dreams and the silver moon that appeared right in the middle to be drenched in this blood and burn hot red like ember. As she stood there, with her eyes fixed on the pool and a ringing that would stay with her throughout her life because of the damage to her ears, she could hear the whispers of the trees as if replying the push of the wind and the portentous words hidden in these whispers.
When the night falls… Don’t sleep. Don’t dare to sleep…
She couldn’t stay there any longer. Her heart pounding away, she quickly crossed the woods and went inside, bumping into her mother. Their eyes met for a moment. Something in her eyes scared Ela. It was as if her mother knew what she had found.
Turkish Landscapes, Little Moon, 1981, Oil on canvas, 130 x 162,5 cm., FNAC 35333 Donation Mario Prassinos à l'Etat / Centre National des Arts Plastiques
That night, as they ate their dinner at the narrow table in the kitchen, her mother’s increasing tension had turned into a deep silence. Her usual cheerfulness was now only a perfunctory smile hanging from the corner of her mouth. When their eyes occasionally met, her mother looked away from Ela as if she could not bear to look at her, concentrating instead on her plate, treating it as the most important thing on earth. Her hand holding her fork was trembling. Her face had gone pale, her leg nervous under the table, affirming her anxiety. Her father and brother obliviously joked with each other, and Ela wanted to talk with her mother, who sensed this and immediately got up from the table to go and wash the dishes. She seemed to be afraid of what Ela had to tell.
That night, right before going to bed, they ran into each other at the door of the bathroom, and her mother said only one thing before she went into her room and closed the door.
Ela was confused. She didn’t know what to make of her mother’s words. “Don’t sleep, don’t you fall asleep tonight!” she had said. She appeared certain that Ela would know what she meant. The look in her eyes was determined, almost stern.
The journey had left Ela tired, but she fought not to fall asleep. The cracking sounds from the wooden floors and walls of the old mansion, the eerie dance of the shadow of the cypresses projected onto the wall by the moonlight seeping in through the muslin curtain, the whispers that she intermittently heard through the buzzing in her ears, and the threat she felt ever since she set foot in the house… The expectation that something will happen kept her awake and alert. But she couldn’t keep it up for long; a strange weariness suddenly engulfed her, and at long last she yielded to her eyelids that longed to close, and fell into the arms of the nightmare awaiting her.
This time the nightmare was even stranger, more ominous, more menacing… She first heard the sound of that small bell, the irregular chimes announcing the beginning of the nightmare. This nightmare had no colors; everything was drawn with charcoal. In the shadow of the black cypresses that reached up like they wanted to bite off a chunk of the sky, she was walking barefoot on damp ground warmed by the light of the moon. The whispers circled the trees and found their way towards her, while her eyes were fixed on the large teardrops appearing on the bark of the trees and sorrowfully trickling down. Their callous skins were shuddering and heaving imperceptibly like in a sigh. They were crying, painfully pleading for forgiveness. A sudden gush of wind from nowhere began caressing her hair like a silk hand when she was almost halfway there. Then she heard the voice of her mother in the wind. Go back, go back, she was whispering in her ear.
Go back before it’s too late…
But Ela walked on, whether she wanted to or not.
The crying was now replaced by painful screams. They emanated from the moon pool at the end of the path. Ela was scared… She bit into her lip to stop herself from screaming, and she felt the twitching in her back. The wind grew stronger and made her eyes water; from behind that mist, she noticed a shadowy figure emerge from the darkness beyond the moon pool. She had sensed its existence since the very beginning. The unnamed master of the nightly terror watched her in evil mirth, having waited for her for a long time.
For a moment Ela felt her heart skip a beat. She did not want to go there. The figure was malign, foul, pitch black… As soon as it touched her she would become foul, too, and fall into the abyss. She resisted; her feet felt heavy, taken root in the ground to stop her from going. But the power of the stranger was immense. Its eyes, shimmering behind the hood that hid its face, were fixed on Ela’s eyes, pulling her towards it with great force. Ela’s body was weak, and could not resist any longer. Her feet were pulled off from the ground. Her body was lifted up, sailing through the air towards it as if in response to its call.
Maritime Night, 1972, Aquatint and dry point on copper, 76 x 56 cm., FNAC 35364 Centre National des Arts Plastiques
As she got closer to the stranger, the full moon became brighter, incandescent with a white flame, blessing her nightmare with a painful light. The shadows of the cypresses fell onto the path lit by the light, and they writhed and crawled on the ground that bound them, trying to reach and stop her; their branches flexed out in each and every direction, broke off, leaping towards her, hopelessly grappling for her white nightgown that billowed in the wind between her legs.
It was no use. Not even one of them managed to stop her. Ela was now drifting in an invisible torrent towards the stranger. Now she too had begun to cry. Through her tears she realized that the dark figure disappeared for a moment, only to suddenly reappear in front of the pool. Its hands and bare feet shone in the cruel moonlight like marble, and a lock of long, silvery hair, emerging from the hood and dancing in the wind, scared her more than the scariest nightmare she had ever seen.
She saw the figure lift its arms. The light from the sharp edge of the long, silver knife in its hand blinded Ela, and the stranger leapt towards her. Ela closed her eyes… She heard her mother’s voice once more…
Noooo! Not my daughter! You can’t take my daughter!
As the screams of the trees echoed in her mind, she heard her mother’s voice. The cruel hand that grabbed her hair was trying to make her kneel, but Ela was silently calling out to her mother. She knew… Her mother knew why this was happening.
The hand took hold of her hair once more. Ela cried out in pain. The stone reliefs on the side of the pool were hurting her hand. Even though she tried to resist, she was now on her knees, facing the pitch black water of the pool. The hand that held her hair was forcing her to look into the water. The full moon shone on the dark, rippling water like a jewel, and suddenly Ela felt her head being pulled back. She also felt the coldness of the metal against her throat, the pulsing cut, and the smell of her own blood that flowed out. She put her hands on her throat. The pain she felt was so real that she suddenly realized this was not a nightmare. This was her second rendezvous with death. Her blood was spurting from between her fingers into the pool, turning its water to red. Her bleeding continued. The moon’s reflection had changed as well, turning red and burning like a ball of ember in the pool.
The whistle of the wind, the moaning and screaming of the trees… Her mother’s voice…
“Do it! Do it now!”
With a last effort, she leaned against the stranger and reached up. She held the stranger’s cold and thin wrists tightly in her hands. Her nightgown was wet with the blood dripping from her neck, clinging to her belly and legs with a cold wetness that almost sealed her skin. Ela closed her eyes with a sudden shiver and listened to the hopeless call of the cypresses. She felt her heart slow with a surge of electricity flowing through her body and an immense force gather and strike in her chest, then rush out to her hands. They were heating up…
The stranger began to writhe in pain and fury, shouting, trying to break free. But the power in Ela’s hands had penetrated the marks of lightning, which she used to think of as the red shadows of cypresses, releasing them from the skin they were embossed on and bringing them to life. The red cypresses on her back and her arms were growing, getting longer, branching out, and attacking the wrists locked in her hands, then the unseen arms, and the body. The stranger was screaming. Ela looked up at the suffering stranger. It was a very old woman. A ghost. But she was also made of flesh and bone. She was moaning in pain as the slender branches of the red cypresses covered her into a cocoon.
Ela was about to pass out when the tip of the long and silver knife punctured the cocoon and emerged from right under the stranger’s heart. The stranger exploded like a balloon filled with blood and spilled over to the ground; Ela had fallen back. Her breathing slowed down. She turned her eyes to the blond girl standing next to her, about ten, holding the bloody silver knife in her hand. Ela smiled to the child. She was not alone on her second rendezvous with death. The child who now knelt down to caress her bloody hair was her mother…
Ela was in her own room, lying in her bed when she opened her eyes. Her mother sat by her side, looking at her with sad but loving eyes. Her recuperation had not taken long. The wound in her throat had not killed her somehow, but her voice was gone. When she was strong enough to get up, preparations began for leaving. They were going to leave this worn-down mansion behind and never come back again. This was a cemetery and no breathing creature would want to live in one before the time had come.
The night Ela came to, her mother told her she would tell the story only once; and then, they would never talk about it again.
What happened that night was a dream, but it was also the past itself…
The woman had married very young, and her older husband worshipped her. Their child was born healthy but after a while it kept getting sick. They consulted many doctors, but to no avail. Nobody seemed to know what was going on. Finally, a charlatan hoja told them the child must be washed in blood on the first full moon of every year, which marked the beginning of a true nightmare. The young mother could not think straight and accepted this without protest. The husband, who loved his wife very much, went out during the first full moon of every year in search of a victim. An outcast, a homeless, a stranger. Someone nobody would ask about or look for.
The baby was bathed in the moon pool filled with the blood of the victims. The victims themselves were buried in the garden. A cypress was planted on each corpse. Time passed. The husband did not want to kill people anymore. He could no longer bear the crying of the cypresses… And on his young daughter’s tenth birthday, he realized she would never get well. It was his beloved wife that was making the child sick. In order to attract attention, in order to be always loved. When the husband realized this, he sent his daughter to her aunt. That night, he shot his wife. Then he shot himself. The sick soul of his wife was imprisoned in the house. And for years, it waited for the daughter to come back.
That evil stranger was Ela’s grandmother. Finally, when her daughter came back years later to the house, when the full moon fell into the moon pool filled with blood, she was buried in the soil under the shadows of the cypresses…
And finally, the crying of the cypresses stopped.
Written by Işın Beril Tetik
Translated by g yayın grubu
I walk over rocks hot as iron under the September sun. I can make out a few lines in the distance, and a few cracked rocks, but apart from those, not a single tree, not one plant. I have walked until I reached this hill, in the trail of the letter that hurled me once again to my home town...
Among the most interesting themes in the oeuvre of Prassinos are cypresses, trees, and Turkish landscapes. The cypress woods in Üsküdar he saw every time he stepped out on the terrace of their house in İstanbul or the trees in Petits Champs must have been strong images of childhood for Prassinos.
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